Cohabitation Awareness Week: James’s story

family life

James and Sarah met at University, whilst watching a band in the Student’s Union (neither could remember afterwards who the band were). James was studying for a teaching qualification, and Sarah was doing a business studies course. They hit it off immediately, and soon became ‘an item’.

Their relationship blossomed throughout the rest of their time at University. They both got their degrees, with James scraping a third for his BEd, and Sarah sailing to a first for her BA.

James’s disappointment at his degree was soon forgotten when Sarah agreed to him moving in with her, in the little flat she had been given by her late father.

The following years were bliss for the couple, both domestically, and in their careers. James was teaching in a primary school, and found that he was very good with children. Sarah, meanwhile, had rapidly established a career for herself in the City, and was soon earning good money.

James’s happiness was completed when Sarah announced to him that she was expecting their child. There was just one problem, said Sarah. She wanted to return to work after the child was born, so that she could continue with her very promising career. In any event, she didn’t think that she was cut out to be a child carer, and James was so good with children. Would he be prepared to give up his career to look after the child?

It did make sense. The money that James was expecting to earn as a primary school teacher paled into insignificance when compared to the money that Sarah was already earning, let alone what she might earn in the future. With little hesitation, James agreed. Sarah could return to her career after the birth, and James would bring up their child. He would be a ‘house husband’, even if he and Sarah were not actually married.

There was also another problem. The flat only had one bedroom, and was quite unsuitable for bringing up a child. They therefore found a lovely old cottage in the countryside that would be a perfect place to raise a family. As it would be bought from the proceeds of sale of Sarah’s flat, and with the aid of a large mortgage that she was able to obtain with her substantial income, the cottage was purchased in Sarah’s sole name.

Sarah gave birth to baby Jemima shortly after the purchase was completed.

Over the next nineteen years James stayed at home, playing out the role of ‘house husband’ to perfection. Meanwhile, Sarah’s career continued to flourish. She used her large income not just to pay off the mortgage but also to renovate and extend the cottage, so that it became a very desirable property.

James had been happy bringing up Jemima, but when she in turn left home for university, things stared to go wrong. James was at a loose end. He thought about going back into teaching, but so much had changed over the years that his qualification was almost worthless. He would have to start all over again. He found himself moping around alone at home for much of the time, while Sarah was working harder than ever.

Sarah, in turn, began to resent the fact that James was doing nothing while she was working. She resented, in particular, the fact that she paid for everything, and he contributed nothing.

They started to have arguments. It was the beginning of the end. James began drowning his sorrows in drink, but that only made matters worse. Things came to a head one evening when Sarah returned home from work late, to find James in a drunken stupor on the floor of the conservatory. Sarah ‘blew her top’ and demanded that James leave her house the next day. James, in no condition to argue, agreed.

James found himself with nothing: no home, no job, no money and no pension. But surely, even though he and Sarah never married, he was entitled to something after giving up his career and devoting himself to the task of child carer and ‘house husband’? He consulted a solicitor and was shocked to find the answer…

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This week is ‘Cohabitation Awareness Week’, a campaign launched by Resolution, the association of family lawyers, to promote awareness of the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘common law marriage’ – cohabitees have no rights – and to press for the law to be amended to give cohabitees basic legal rights when they separate.

Photo by essie via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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